By Mary Miller Cullins
Boxer Jack Johnson was born in Galveston, Texas in 1878 and in 1908 he became the first African American to win the world heavyweight crown when he knocked out Tommy Burns.
The fast living Johnson held on to the title until 1915 and continued to box until he was 50 years old. John Arthur “Jack” Johnson was the son of ex-slaves and the third of nine children. Maybe that is why he possessed an air of confidence and the drive to exceed beyond the hardscrabble life his parents had known.
By the age of 16, Johnson was on his own, travelling to New York and later Boston before returning to his hometown. Johnson’s first fight came around this time. His opponent was a fellow longshoreman, and while the purse wasn’t much—just $1.50—Johnson jumped at the chance and won the fight. Not long after he earned $25 for managing to stick out four rounds against professional boxer Bob Thompson.
Eager to get out of Galveston and try and forge a life around boxing, Johnson left his home again in 1899. By the early 1900′s, the 6’2″ Johnson, who’d become known as the Galveston Giant, had made a name for himself in the black boxing circuit and had his eyes set on the world heavyweight title, which was held by white boxer Jim Jeffries. But Jeffries refused to fight him. He wasn’t alone. White boxers would not spar with their black counterparts.
But Johnson’s talents and bravado were too hard to ignore. Finally, on December 26, 1908, the flamboyant Johnson, who often taunted his opponents as he beat them soundly, got his chance for the title when champion Tommy Burns fought him outside of Sydney, Australia.
Burns, who had succeeded Jeffries as champion, had only agreed to fight Johnson after promoters guaranteed him $30,000. The fight, which novelist Jack London attended and wrote about for a New York newspaper, lasted until the 14th round, when police stepped in and ended it. Johnson was named the winner.
From there, Johnson continued his calls for Jeffries to step into the ring with him. On July 4, 1910, he finally did. Dubbed the “Fight of the Century,” more than 22,000 eager fans turned out for the bout, held in Reno, Nevada. After 15 rounds, Johnson came away victorious, affirming his domain over boxing and further angering white boxing fans who hated seeing a black man sit atop the sport.
Jeffries was humbled by the loss and what he’d seen of his opponent. “I could never have whipped Johnson at my best,” Jeffries said. “I couldn’t have hit him. No, I couldn’t have reached him in 1,000 years.”
For the fight, Johnson earned a purse of $117,000. It would be five years before he relinquished the heavyweight title, when Johnson fell to Jess Willard in a 26-round bout in Havana, Cuba.
As Johnson became a bigger name in the sport of boxing, he also became a bigger target for a white America that longed to see him ruined. For his part, Johnson loved to brandish his wealth and his disdain for racial rules.
He dated white women, drove lavish cars and spent money freely. But trouble was always lurking. In 1912, he was convicted of violating the Mann Act for bringing his white girlfriend across state lines before their marriage. Sentenced to prison, he fled to Europe, remaining there as a fugitive for seven years. He returned to the United States in 1920 and ultimately served out his sentence.
His life came to an unfortunate end on June 10, 1946 when he died in an automobile accident in Raleigh, North Carolina.
Since his death, Johnson’s life and career have undergone a major rehabilitation. His alleged crimes are now seen as the result of racial bias in law enforcement.
In 1990 he was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.